Director Joel Crawford lightens up the tone, dials back the threat of being eaten, and delivers a fun, prehistoric romp about learning its best to face our challenges together.
Seven years after it was originally greenlit, DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods: A New Age finally hits theatres today, having survived a 2014 reschedule, a 2016 production halt, a 2017 production restart, a 2019 reschedule, a pandemic, and yet another reschedule earlier this year. But… it’s finally here! Eep, Grug, Ugga, Guy, Thunk and Gran Crood are back, along with a new set of characters, the Bettermans, a few steps up the evolutionary ladder. After having survived constant danger and disaster, including being forced to leave the safety of their cave, the Croods have managed to navigate to the end of the world, only to face their biggest challenge: another family.
The comedy adventure is directed by Joel Crawford, a DreamWorks veteran who worked on films including Trolls, Shrek and the Kung Fu Panda franchises, and produced by Mark Swift, who worked on Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted).
Oscar winner Nicolas Cage, Catherine Keener, Oscar winner Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Clark Duke, and the legendary Oscar winner Cloris Leachman return, joined by Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, and Kelly Marie Tran.
We recently had a chance to talk to Crawford about his new film. He talked about his efforts to lighten up the tone, deliver some laughs, and make sure everyone knew that after seven years, the loveable Crood family was back.
Dan Sarto: The first Croods film took everyone by surprise, I recall, doing even better than expected. So, it wasn’t surprising the sequel got the fast greenlight. But then, NBCUniversal bought the studio, the film was shelved, then it came back into production, and now it’s here… in a pandemic! Quite a bit of work had been done before the first cancelation – how different is your film from those first sequel versions?
Joel Crawford: I'd say, as far as the history of The Croods: A New Age, when I approached the project three years ago, Mark Swift and I came in and found multiple iterations in storyboard as well as a script. The main idea of the Croods meeting another family and ending up sharing a neighborhood with them, that's been a through line that hasn’t changed. The execution, some of the weird moments, they're all in this version that Mark and I put together.
I'll give you an example. When we approached the script, Eep had met this other girl, named Dawn, but there was an instant … there was a love triangle, there was this instant jealousy between the two. There was a cattiness. And that's one of the first big changes we made. We wanted to approach the story from an honest point of view from the characters. And so, in thinking about cavepeople traveling the world, not coming across any other humans and then suddenly, when Eep sees another girl her age, it's got to be a celebration. It's your brand-new friend. So, we went in that direction. And there are so many things, like Gran's story, the thunder sisters, that are all new additions.
DS: I’m assuming bringing in writers from The LEGO Movie lightened up the story, made the film a little bit funnier and less serious than the first movie. How does the tone of the new film compare to the first film?
JC: It's tough to make a sequel because the first movie, by nature, is the biggest event in those characters' lives. So, justifying a second movie sometimes leads people to say, "What will be more dramatic? What's the darker story?" And you end up taking the fun out of what we love about those characters.
For me, I want it to be a celebration that the Croods are back after seven years. And the big story in the sequel is that they meet another family. And the stakes are big in terms of change for all the Croods; their world views are all challenged. But yeah, it's a lighter tone. It's fun to see all their character flaws and all of them bumping into each other. We purposely lightened it up not just in terms of comedy, but also in the production design.
In the first movie everything was trying to kill them. Their world is falling apart. In the new film, the world is settled a little bit. And, you come across this Betterman Farm, which is amazing and so saturated and bright. So yeah, we definitely went brighter.
DS: There's a burden on a sequel in that you want to draft on all the good things established in the first film that the fans loved. You don't want to move so far away that it feels completely unfamiliar, but you also don't want to tread over the same ground you’ve already covered before. How challenging was it to find a balance between introducing new themes and characters and staying true to the foundation of the first film that resonated most with audiences?
JC: I was constantly asking myself that same question because I’m a fan of the first film, though I didn’t work on it, and I’m a fan of Chris Sanders, a fan of Kirk D'Amico. And one of the cool things for me was having Chris come in and give me notes on the script early on and really help me understand the characters. And that for me, the part I don't want to lose from the first movie, is those characters. That's what people love. That's what I love. And so being honest to those characters in this new chapter was one goal we had to achieve.
The other part, like you said, is you don't want to just repeat the same movie. I didn't want this to feel like I was trying to make a Chris and Kirk duplicate. So, as long as I was truthful to the characters, my sensibilities have to apply in here. And I have to trust those sensibilities. We were constantly asking ourselves that; we were always aware at preview screenings. "The audience will let us know if we broke it." But as you approach a sequel there should be some spontaneity, some fun, something you don't expect. And I think that just comes from my sensibilities not being the same as Chris and Kirk’s.
DS: Most notable in the first film were the hybrid animals, which from a designer standpoint, I imagine, were dream assignments.
DS: What can you share about how you approached these hybrids in the new film and how much of a role they play in the story?
JC: They’re such a fun sandbox to play in. The Croodacious world, as we call it, is a time when the world was a teenager, it was discovering itself and was forming these weird hybrid creatures and environments. You can easily go crazy creating lots of different creatures, and we did. In the first movie, it was awesome that thematically the world reinforced the theme. It was this unpredictable world, a world that was pulling itself apart. Grug was trying to keep his family together against the unknown. So, those hybrids really helped in the first movie.
For me, the sequel is a story about two quite different families who judge each other based on their appearance. On preconceived ideas. And when they look deeper, it's not what they thought. There's more than meets the eye. And so that was the guideline with the Croodacious creatures and worlds. In this one, let's surprise the audience, and our own characters, with something like a wolf-spider, that looks like a hideous spider - scary at first – but upon further inspection, is actually a dog. It's something endearing. Or there's a butterfly forest that looks just like a beautiful forest. But it's prehistoric-sized butterflies that take off. And having those surprises feed back into the theme, and the experience of the characters and the audience, was really important to us.
DS: Were there any that you really wanted to keep, but ultimately had to lose?
JC: There are so many characters, so much story, that you end up cutting down scenes. One that's in there that I would have loved to see more of if we had had the time was the landshark. It just seems like a missed opportunity. It can swim, and it can crawl. A chase scene with one of those would have been awesome. There's a board full of lots of different creatures that it was hard to choose.
DS: Maybe you can get to some of them in the third film.
JC: We’ll just collect them.
DS: Were there any part of this production where you lay awake at night thinking, “What did I get myself into?” What foes did you meet, and conquer?
JC: Two things. First, there's so much that I don't know about animation pipeline details, like when it comes to lighting, to surfacing; there are all these specialties where we have amazing supervisors who make the world and the characters look fantastic. For me, a big concern going in was that I had to know all of this. I had to be able to wrap my arms around the look of the movie and the story. It was really freeing when I saw the talent I was surrounded with at DreamWorks with every head of department. It was a relief to realize, “They got this as long as I can lock into the story.”
Second, I’d say is the story. That was the thing that kept me up at night. It’s a story not just about one character, but an ensemble. There are so many stories to track. It’s a story about change and people fighting change, then embracing it and embracing friendship. So, having to navigate all those storylines, making them all feed into the same endpoint, where the characters find out they’re all better together, that was something I'm proud of that we accomplished. But it definitely wasn't easy to wrangle.
DS: Last question. What do you hope people come away with when they watch the film?
JC: When I approached this movie. I wanted it to feel like a celebration that the Croods are back. I wanted there to be a joy. And right now, with where the world is, having a big comedy about families who are different on their surface, but come together and realize their future is brighter together, that's what I want people to come away with. That there's a positivity in this movie. Not only that, but I also want people to laugh. Laugh with their friends, laugh with their family… that to me would be great, just to have people laugh and have fun when they watch the film.
DreamWorks Animations’ The Croods: A New Age opens in theatres today, November 25.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.